Last year, my lovely friend Mandy gifted me a copy of Rachel Joyce’s new novel, Miss Benson’s Beetle. I had read and enjoyed Joyce’s first book, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, so I was delighted to have the chance to read her latest work.
From the blurb:
“It is 1950. In a devastating moment of clarity, Margery Benson abandons her dead-end job and advertises for an assistant to accompany her on an expedition. She is going to travel to the other side of the world to search for a beetle that may or may not exist. Enid Pretty, in her unlikely pink travel suit, is not the companion Margery had in mind. And yet together they will be drawn into an adventure that will exceed every expectation. They will risk everything, break all the rules, and at the top of a red mountain, discover their best selves.
This is a story that is less about what can be found than the belief it might be found; it is an intoxicating adventure story but it is also about what it means to be a woman and a tender exploration of a friendship that defies all boundaries.”
This is a book that grips the reader right from the outset. The first few pages are so compelling and set up beautifully the rest of the novel. Margery’s natural zest for life bursts out of the opening sentence: “When Margery was ten, she fell in love with a beetle.” We understand completely how the compass of her universe is totally shaped by her father: “‘I have begun to feel comforted.’ he said, ‘by the thought of all we do now know, which is nearly everything.’ With that upside-down piece of wisdom, he turned another page. ‘Ah!’ He pointed at a speck. A beetle.”
Within a few more pages, however, we find that lively Margery has become disappointed Miss Benson. Our hearts lurch over the turn her life has taken. Can she finally save herself by channeling her long-held desire to find an illusive beetle on the other side of the world?
When I reached the end of this wonderful book, my first thought was that it felt like a kind of ‘girl’s own adventure’. I had been holding off listening to interviews with Joyce until I had read the book and, in the first podcast I played, I heard her describe her wish to write an adventure for girls! She was keen to write a book about relationships between women and so there are only a few male characters throughout the narrative, but these are mostly seen through the perspective of their place in the lives of the main female. The one exception to this is Mundic, a former POW, held in Burma during WWII, whose story is separate from, but interwoven with that of Margery and, in due course, her unlikely ‘friend’ Enid. It was initially difficult to see why he had been included. But I came to think of him as symbolic of people who get lost in and by society, and who become paralysed by their experiences and circumstances. This contrasts starkly with Margery and Enid’s personal journeys and Joyce’s examination of how people can be made or broken by their own choices and by life’s chance.
Joyce’s narrative style is deceptively light and amusing. Buried in all the capers is a deep understanding of human nature. She explores and exposes the problems caused by hasty judgements, fixed beliefs and a lack of kindness. The book is full of ‘ah-ha’ moments, which are all the more powerful for their quiet emergence.
I absolutely loved this book for all its warmth and power (thank you Mandy! 💚) and I will definitely be looking back at the novels by Joyce that I have not yet read. 😀